The wheat — as if it were painted by the wind — had changed from a sea of green to gold. Dad, who thought there was nothing more beautiful than North Dakota’s endless small grain landscape, eagerly readied the machinery.
The binder, once driven by a horse team, was pulled from the shed. The canvas and the wood that was its backbone needed repair. An old fellow with years of experience did the job but warned that it remained in bad shape. The general store carried Minnesota brand twine, which Dad said was the best.
The twine was the work of prisoners in the Stillwater prison, who also made license plates, wagons, and manure spreaders to be made ready for productive lives.
Once the binder was outside, a debate started among us about who would open the twine container’s round cap. It was inevitable that wasps had built a home inside and would attack when disturbed. An older brother cackled that only a chicken would be scared about a sting. I sure was, but to prove that I was not I volunteered.
It was time to open the first field, which meant that we would follow behind the binder and toss bundles out of the way. Our attention waivered as grasshoppers, crickets, frogs, and moles were uncovered. Dad, who wore a straw hat with green visor to shield himself from the sun, knew that we would eventually get the job done.
Setting shocks was a much more serious task. Mother and Dad used to work together on it, but no more. Dad started by taking a salt tablet, which he said would help ward off the heat’s impact. Each shock was capped to protect against rain. Although late July and early August were usually dry, a rainy spell meant the shocks would be torn apart and reset.
The threshing machine pulled by a steel-wheeled Allis Chalmers rumbled two miles along a gravel road to reach the field. It was a massive beast that was calibrated by its owner, Frank. He also provided a 1930s-era Ford truck to haul wheat to the elevator. The truck box was not in perfect condition and its holes were plugged with gunny and feed sacks.
Frank stood tall on the threshing machine, adjusting it as needed so that not much grain would be blown into the straw stack. He had run the threshing crew for years and did not welcome any advice from amateurs.
Since many farmers had made the switch to tractor-pulled or self-propelled combines, the threshing circuit had been reduced to three farms. Frank was a bachelor, so no meals were served there. However, we feasted on the two other locations.
Mashed potatoes, roast beef and pork, fried chicken, pie, and lemonade proved that the farm wives were great cooks who would be offended if we did not eat until our bellies were more than full.
All good things must end. Dad was under pressure from his older sons to buy a tractor-pulled combine. He resisted on grounds that a combine could not possibly be as good a harvester as a threshing machine. The labor supply was plentiful, and he was the type to favor the old way over any new.
Dad caved to his sons’ wishes and bought a combine in the mid-1960s. It was more efficient, but something was lost when the threshing crew disbanded. Oh, we still worked together to castrate pigs, dehorn cattle, and butcher chickens and hogs.
When we gather as old men, talk often turns to the former days when we worked together without pay to accomplish something great. The consensus is that we did not realize how good we had it.
However, it is also agreed that a combine with cab and a truck without holes in its box sure beats a binder, threshing machine, and straw stack.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.